Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Tuesday, 1 August 2006

"Everything in this country must" by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 2000)

2 short stories and a novella, all having a youth as the main character, whose same-sex parent is dead or invalided. They all feature "The Troubles". The short stories feature a first-person youth. Katie in the title piece is 15. She says things like "I stretched wide like love", and "The night had started stars. They were up through the branches. The river was spraying in them". The son in "Wood" doesn't yet shave. He begins by saying "It was just past night-time when we brought the logs down to the mill. The storm was finished but there was snow still on the hedges and it looked like they had a white eyebrow" and later (p.22) says "There was ivy on the walls and it looked like our secret was climbing up the vines to Daddy's room".

They are convenient observers who don't understand (or at least can't express) what's happening, especially in the larger world. This is plausible trait in children. Katie seems naive for her age (taking an instant fancy to a soldier although her father hates them) but maybe she's led an isolated life and has been deprived of love. The children have to play the roles of adults, though they still play like kids sometimes. The author ventriloquizes (rather than intrudes) when the children can't express enough. This mix lets the work be "lyrical" (the author putting words into the children's mouths) and also "controlled" (the children seem unmoved by what they see). We see the committed, emotional parents via the children's clinical observations. It can be highly effective, but you have to buy into the style and its contradictions.

I'd already read the title story in "The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories". I was impressed. McCann was under 35 when he wrote it. The child feels powerless against fatalism - "Stevie and the draft horse were going to die, since everything in this county must". Perhaps the father knew that the horse was too injured to survive anyway.

In "Woods" the mother colludes in a small way while her husband's bedridden after a stroke. She enlists her oldest son, telling him not to tell the rest of the family.

Kevin in "Hunger Strike" is 13. His mother's trying hard to keep him away from the troubles (they've moved south to live in a caravan, and she's careful with her accent) but Kevin's floundering in search of a male role model. Unlike the youths in the other stories, Kevin is rebellious, has few responsibilities foisted upon him, and is interested in distant events - as long as they involve relatives. He does his own hunger strike secretly, in sympathy with that of his uncle. As in the other stories, there are distracting sentences

  • the flat start of "They went towards the sea and the man looked like he was walking towards days that once had been" contrasts sharply with the rest of the sentence
  • "the mountains contorted the blacktop roads to their liking" comes amongst thoughts explicited owned by Kevin, but whose observation is this really?

The ending is obvious in a short-story way, though effective. At least he didn't burn his boats.

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